Saturday, December 11, 2010

Vin chaud and white lights

It's three in the morning and here I sit, glass of hot vin chaud - the spiced and brandied red wine I made earlier this evening to have with leftover boeuf bourguignon, and it finally hits me that after a more than a week of visitors, Christmas parties, finals, grading, faculty meetings, and yet one more party to come, that it is only eleven days before we set off on our winter vacation. Normally, we would take the winter vacation in New York but this year we going to Rome, a city neither of us has been to. Florence is on the itinerary as is New Year in Venice. Of all the buildings I'm going to see, Bramante's Tempietto is the one I'm most most looking forward to.

Christmas, in its own way, a festival of lights, when in the short, dark days of the northern midwinter fires were lit not only against the cold, holly and mistletoe, the greenery of the old gods, hung above doors and windows, and trees ornamented with candles. One of my most clear memories of childhood Christmases is of a card printed with a snowy coaching scene that because of its metal foil surface and a shred of embossing glinted magically in the light of the fire. The magic of that glint, the glow of fire in a dark room, the blue shadows beyond the slab of light from a window thrown across snow, has never left me. Last night at our condo holiday party the major decorations were large glass vases filled white lights and white twigs from which hung many icicles - to me the most glamouring of combinations, frost and fire. It's good sometimes to snatch a few seconds, just to appreciate how light in the dark is so essential and elemental a condition.

When, last weekend, I asked the Celt what we might serve for his sister-in-law's last-night-with-us dinner with friends he immediately said boeuf bourguignon, gratin dauphinoise and roasted asparagus with a bought-in fruit tart to follow - suggesting he'd hitherto given it a tad more thought than had I. Boeuf bourguignon it was but the odd thing is I realized I'd never made it before. I'd made the Flemish version of beef in beer, slowly stewed beef with prunes and red wine, even stroganoffed filet (the "t" is not silent in this household) with sour cream and mushrooms - in fact over the years I'd stewed a lot of beef but had never done the classic, Julia Child popularized, blogged-about and movie-starred boeuf bourguignon. Well, I made it and I can tell you honestly it was a total disappointment - until, that is, on reheating two days later and with the last minute addition of buttered mushrooms and pearl onions, it had evolved into the most salubrious of casseroles. There's a morsel, perhaps not served well by a second and third reheating, left for lunch tomorrow.

As to gratin dauphinoise, and this is where I recognize the irony of taking anti-cholesterol medication, I like it simple - well-seasoned, thinly-sliced potatoes, layered with cream and lots of garlic (none of the rub the dish with garlic nonsense) and slowly, slowly baked. Simple, subtle, and salacious.

I shall resume posts about connections, circles within circles, next week.


  1. Silent "t" for me too. Boeuf bourguignon is a dish we make quite often - well our version of it anyway. The secret is to make it the day before, and cook it long and slow, (which is why yours tasted better the second and third time around). Leftovers are so very often much better, which is why we very often cook dishes like this in advance, and allow the sauces to fully infiltrate the meat etc.

    What a treat going to Rome, especially over Christmas. Will you manage mass with the Pope at St Peter's? A friend who went to that said it was completely magical, and I can think of a no more appropriate way of celebrating Christmas, whether or not you are Catholic.

  2. Blue --

    1) I'm envious -- only last week we resolved to spend next Christmas in Rome, my favorite city in the world. (Pray that it doesn't snow; even half an inch makes the place dysfunctional. Think about early dinner at the Hassler, at least for the view at sunset.)

    2) Boeuf bourguignon is one of half a dozen party dinners I can make without thinking. I've used many recipes, but the only one that regularly kills is Deborah Devonshire's, which you can find in the New York Times archives. (Usual proviso about best-quality meat, etc. Also, there is no one alive who can really tell whether you've "cheated" by using frozen baby onions.)

    Have fun.

  3. Best wishes to you and the Celt for a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year! I look forward to your Italian-inspired posts on your return!

  4. AH! I have been meaning to post on my food blog boeuf bourguignon. I have made Joel Robuchon's recipe 3 or 4 times and it is absolutely delicious. My son gave me his cookbook )often cited as one of the best of the decade) for a Christmas present. There is not a single photo in it (except for a photo of Chef Robuchon), but don't let this deter you; it is a GREAT cookbook. And if I could send you a bowl of this hearty meal, I would!

    And, yes, let there be light. Let your light shine.

  5. Praise our anti-cholesterol meds. My LDL's bubbled just thinking about your potatoes. Y'all have a big time over there and the have merriest Christmas.

  6. I know you probably have a full "Must See" list, but I wanted to make sure you were considering a visit to one of my all-time favorite religious sites: Borromini's 17th century Baroque masterpiece in Rome, San Carlo Alle Quattro Fontane.

  7. Columnist, thank you. I'd made the stew ahead of time precisely to allow time for melding of flavors to take place but I was suprised initially how little flavor it had. All in all, it is a great success.

    As far as I know we haven't any plans to attend the Pope's mass, and I hesitate to say it, but the smell of incense makes me feel queasy. I can imagine, though, the spectacle alone might be worth the throng. I was brought up in a non-religious family and do not have any connections with Christmas beyond the midwinter festival aspects of the celebrations.

    Christmas aside, I am looking forward tremendously to my first visit to Rome.

  8. Ancient, thank you. Normally, as I wrote, we go to New York for Christmas and this year on a whim over breakfast I questioned whether or not we should again this year and wondered if Rome, perhaps might be a good idea. By that evening everything was booked and we've actually had months to look forward to it.

    Apropos the effect of snow - I live in Atlanta where the mere threat can cause supermarkets to be stripped of bread, milk and beer so I can relate to what you are telling me.

    The Hassler was booked this morning - on your recommendation!

    No frozen baby onions were harmed in the making of the boeuf bourguignon - only fresh ones peeled by the fair hand of the Celt's sister-in-law. My contribution, beyond the initial making and final assembly of the stew, was a tantrum when the mushrooms I was cleaning fell to the floor.

  9. John T, thank you. We are taking a camera with us. I am so excited! Our best wishes to you and yours, also.

  10. Bruce, thank you. I shall try Joel Robuchon's recipe. Mine was a Barefoot Contessa version which seemed the simplest of methods. I've made stews before that were incredibly complicated, for results, it seemed to me, not worth the effort. This worked out well.

  11. Terry, thank you, and the same to you and your family.

  12. John T, thank you. Yes, we plan to as it is on the route of "two hour walk around Bernini's Rome" in the Dorling Kindersley guide book.

  13. Dear Blue,
    May I suggest Craig Claiborne's recipe for Boeuf
    Bourguignon II in the New York Times Cook Book, printed 1961...with following emendation. After cooking for 1-1/2 hours at the recommended 350F temperature, I lower to 300F for the remaining two or so hours. Freshly chopped flat leaf parsley to finish before serving.
    It is savory and succulent.

    As for Rome, if you have an interest in Early Christian Art and/or mosaics, The Basilica of St Clement is unforgettable. Santa Prassede is another jewel. But there is only so much time...and so many centuries to see.

    Buon viaggio!

  14. Here is the recipe:

  15. Love to hear about your holiday rome-ings. I have found red wine to be the best anti-cholesteral drug. My HDL is 99! Wish red wine could be purchased on my insurance plan. Have a lovely trip.

  16. Hello Blue,
    The only time I attempted to make BB it was a dismal failure. I now rely on others' much-better efforts at it (although I am tempted to try the D of D's, based on the Ancient's recommendation). When in Rome do have a drink at the Hotel de Russie, which is where we stayed this summer and found it to be impossibly chic, and the martinis flawless. Reggie

  17. Good morning, Reggie. The Hotel de Russie shall definitely be on our itinerary for any recommendation by you is worth following up with! Thank you.

    My BB was based on a recipe by the Barefoot Contessa (not someone I'd normally refer to) but her method seemed the simplest and least time-consuming. It was relatively simple, turned out to be delicious after the initial disappointment and incidentally was an excuse to buy a new and very big cast-iron casserole.

  18. Oh, Blue. A happy Roman Holiday to you. Safe travels and much joy!